The Good Enough Dissertation Advisor

January 9, 2007, 9:09 pm

For those of you who follow Ferule and Fescue loyally (and if you don’t, ask yourself why….) Flavia has raised the question of the post-grad school relationship between dissertation advisor and advisee. You’ll be glad to know that Flavia has checked in with her advisor and received a satisfactory, if brief, response, that recognizes her continued existence in the world and her capacity for great things. And I’m glad that those of us who encouraged her to do this were helpful. Since I read the outcome of this dilemma, I have had several other thoughts, which should be taken in the spirit of reflection rather than instruction.

My relationship with dissertation advisors – yes, plural – was crafted by a number of unusual things. First, was the place I went to graduate school, which was a fairly middle of the road Ph.D mill (later I discovered this too was a mistaken impression, since 2/3 of the graduate students went on being ABD forever, until they were all booted off the rolls in the early 1980’s). I chose Potemkin University because (I kid you not) it was five blocks away from my very cheap apartment. I realized that if I went to either of the prestigious universities I had been admitted to, I would have to move to more expensive digs or spend a lot of time on the train. Also I had no intention of going on to an academic career (I planned on journalism instead), AND they awarded financial aid without regard to one’s GRE scores, which gave me a big leg up since I had a B.A. from Oligarch University but – in my youthful ambivalence about my future – had arrived to take my GRE’s still mildly affected by the LSD I had taken the night before.

Lucky for me, since as a potential academic I was a real fixer-upper and addicted to making bad choices when good ones were staring me in the face, Potemkin was in a period when they were taking serious steps to become a prestigious major research university. This included colonizing my neighborhood — why move for prestige when prestige, if given time, will move to you? They succeeded spectacularly, to the extent that others now regard my Ph.D. as being just as fancy as the Oligarch degree. Which is kind of a hoot, but also a relief, since I am not a drug-addled twenty-something anymore. It’s a lot like being Edith Wharton’s Oklahoma hair-oil heiress turned New York society queen.

But I digress.

The point is that I had three dissertation directors. The first one, a really lovely man who not only persuaded me to take myself seriously but also opened the door to what an academic career would look like, died quite suddenly. This caused me to get dumped on dissertation director #2, who treated me very badly. I used to think this was because she didn’t like me, and I now realize that wasn’t true – it was because I made her uncomfortable. Why did I make her uncomfortable? Well, partly because I was a really out lesbian, and she was a lesbian who had really struggled over coming out and did so in a way that was ultimately very public and I think cost her a lot. So the last thing she wanted was a lesbian graduate student who called attention to all of that. And this is not simple homophobia, sports fans (is there such a thing as simple homophobia?) Because her favorite daughters were *also* lesbians, something I found deeply confusing and enraging at the time. In fact, as it turned out by accident almost every graduate student recruited in Potemkin’s building phase was a lesbian. These favorite “daughters” – who were friends of mine – were femmey lesbians who you would not necessarily pick out on the street as lesbians. But I was the kind of lesbian who wore Timberland boots, cargo shorts and sweatshirts cut off at the shoulder. THAT kind of lesbian. And I think #2 found me to be – a challenge, shall we say, to be around.

But #2 also did something for me, which I am, in retrospect, grateful for: she put me up for adoption – or rather, foster care. Two particularly fabulous historians had been hired at Eclectic University, down the street, and she suggested that my dissertation would be enhanced considerably if I stopped working with her (begging her to read my work and pouting in the hall outside her office and in the TA lounge when she didn’t) and hung out with The Famous Pair for a year or so until the department had replaced #1. Which I did. And the Famous Pair were (are) two of the most fabulous people I had ever met, and the kind of people who just swept graduate students into their orbit and gave them real work to do. In my first year with them, they brought a lot of other fabulous historians over from Europe, who were kind of like a lot of Marxist aunts and uncles who really thought all intellectuals were the same, whether they had Ph.D.’s or not.

One never felt that there was a hierarchy of attention around The Famous Pair because when they ran out of time during the day they just had you over to dinner. Their famous friends would visit for weeks at a time, and you would wander into the suite of offices they occupied to eat your lunch and He would rush up and say, “Oh I’m so glad you got here early. Eric Hobsbawm wants to talk to you about your research.” Or She would pull you aside and say, “Give Theda Skocpol a call about this dissertation chapter and tell her I said she would be interested in talking to you about it.” They had the capacity which I now realize is very rare: both He and She could really make you feel, for whatever limited contact, that they were only thinking about *you*.

I think this finally allowed me to, in a preliminary way, find myself worthy of attention and care independently of one person’s capacity to reassure me that I was smart — which was, ater all, all I had wanted from #2. But it was the thing she couldn’t give me, that then made the rest of our relationship dysfunctional.

Ok, so here’s the advice I can’t *bear* not to give – when these relationships with those up the hierarchy are not working, remember that those feelings of rage and inadequacy arise somewhere else in your psyche. Dissertation advisors are not parents, but there are moments where they might as well be. Start looking closely at your own students – doesn’t one pop up out of the crowd once in a while who wants something mysterious from you that you just can’t – or don’t want to – give? Whose constant pestering seems pointless? Who is always angry at you for no real reason? Who makes you long for graduation so that s/he will go away forever?

One day I woke up and realized that I had been that nightmare for #2, for reasons that were no fault of my own and probably not even hers.

So by the time dissertation advisor #3 was hired, I not only had the self-confidence to end my formal relationship with #2, but actually the graciousness to lie about the reason so as not to make my departure any more toxic than it had to be. And #3, as I explained to Flavia a week or so ago, is now a very dear friend. In fact she just asked me – little me! –to write a letter for a fellowship for her. Which was absolutely one of my happier moments as an academic, because normally I think that payment for favors granted takes the form of passing those favors on down the chain. How can you repay mentoring? You can’t. You pass on what you have learned to someone else.

To close – here is something I have learned, through age, and a fair amount of excellent psychotherapy. Everyone has intimacy issues, and there is something about academic life that distorts those issues, particularly in fields like History and English where reputation conferred by others within the academy is all most of us will ever have to move us along. #2 was not a bad person, although she did prove herself inadequate to what I needed from a graduate advisor. But now I would have to give her some credit for moving from the place where she wouldn’t help me to the place where she understo
od she couldn’t help me. And on a certain level, that was a caring thing to do. And eventually that gesture got me to #3, who was – to paraphrase D.W Winnicot – a “good enough mentor.”

And it isn’t as though #3 doesn’t have intimacy issues. It’s that we realized over time, to our great delight, that we have pretty much the same intimacy issues! Now, how cool is that?

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